Are you doing “user testing” or “usability testing”?

Calling anything user testing just seems bad. Okay, contrary to the usual content on this blog – which I’ve tried to make about method and technique – this discussion is philosophical and political. If you feel it isn’t decent to talk about the politics of user research in public, then you should perhaps click away right now.

I know, talking about “users” opens up another whole discussion that we’re not going to have here, now. In this post, I want to focus on the difference between “usability testing” and “user testing” and why we should be specific.

When I say “usability test,” what I’m talking about is testing a design for how usable it is. Rather, how unusable it is, because that’s what we can measure: how hard is it to use; how many errors do people make; how frustrated do people feel when using it. Usability testing is about finding the issues that leave a design lacking. By observing usability test sessions, a team can learn about what the issues are and make inferences about why they are happening to then implement informed design solutions.

If someone says “user testing,” what does that mean? Let’s talk about the two words separately.

First, what’s a “user”? It is true that we ask people who use (or who might use) a design to take part in the study of how usable the design is, and some of us might refer to those people as “users” of the product.

Now, “testing” is about using some specified method for evaluating something. If you call it “user testing,” it sure sounds like you are evaluating users, even though what you probably mean to say is that you’re putting a design in front of users to see how they evaluate it. It’s shorthand, but I think it is the wrong shorthand.

If the point is to observe people interacting with a design to see where the flaws in the design are and why those elements aren’t successful, then you’re going beyond user testing. You’re at usability testing. That’s what I do as part of my user research practice. I try not to test the users in the process.

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“User testing” is just easier to say so that's why it's so common. But people generally understand that “user testing” is meant to be synonymous with “usability testing”. No one really thinks “user testing” is a test of the user. On Google, there are 350,000 pages with the term “user testing” and 643,000 pages with the term “usability testing”.

I don't care that there are hundreds of thousands of hits on Google for “user testing.” Calling it that is pure laziness.

I absolutely beg to differ on “user testing” being acceptable because it's easier. Using the term “user testing” so suggests that you are testing the user that researchers and organizations really do think of usability testing as a QA-like activity. It just isn't.

If you use “user testing” or “testing” when you're talking to participants, you are in serious danger of making them think that you really are testing them.

You're not. By doing usability testing, you are evaluating the design. And, by the way, the user *never* fails. The design fails the user.

I propose we start using the term "design testing" or "product testing" since there is so much confusion around "usability" and "user". In my experience "usability testing" is a subset of "user testing" and they’re not interchangeable. They absolutely do not mean the same thing in UX professionals mind that I know.

I’m just never testing users. The design is the subject of the testing or the research. Users are participants, without whom we could never learn what works well (and what does not).